Intercultural communication Mk. II

Tomorrow I will have to write an exam about intercultural communication. As a by-product I came up with this essay about intercultural communication. I thought some readers might find this interesting. Big thanks to Laurence and Tanja for proof-reading it.

We live in a world in which encounters between people from different cultures have, due to travel, business and migration, become quite numerous. Unfortunately, however, these encounters very often suffer from misunderstandings even if the language skills of the people involved are good. The problem is that different cultures have different assumptions about how to deal with things, how to solve problems, how to behave politely etc. This is exactly where communication is most likely to fail.

Studies of intercultural communication attempt therefore to clarify differences between cultures and to make people aware of them.

This essay shall serve the purpose of giving a short introduction to the topic of intercultural communication. To achieve this, in a first step some important definitions will be given. In a second step I will introduce two possibilities of describing cultures in a very general way. A third section will be dedicated to an analysis in how far linguistics can be a useful tool for understanding intercultural communication because it focuses on language as a tool for communication. I will especially introduce the linguistic branch of pragmatics which seems especially suitable for intercultural communication as it is concerned with the context of language use. The context we will focus on in this essay is constituted by the respective cultures of participants in communications. In a fourth step I will try to illustrate the aforesaid by giving examples before finally come to a conclusion. The reader will have to bear in mind that this essay aims to show that pragmatics can be a useful tool in understanding intercultural communication. The aim is not (and in the given time cannot be) to give guidelines on how to successfully interact with persons from other cultures.

When talking about intercultural communication, the very first step must necessarily be a definition of culture. Culture can be defined in two ways. The first definition is that culture encompasses all cultural things that are visible: art, literature, music, etc. These are so-called “institutions” of culture. This aspect of culture is referred to as “objective culture”. The second definition is that culture is “the learned and shared patterns of beliefs, behaviours, and values of groups of interacting people” (Bennet). This aspect is referred to as “subjective culture” and is, in the realm of intercultural communication studies the more important of the two. This is because subjective culture often remains unconscious and so people are not aware that a certain pattern of values is not universal but specific to their culture.

As to limit the scope of the topic and make it manageable in the given time, we will assume that it will not be necessary to take the use of different languages in intercultural encounters into account. Many negotiations of an intercultural kind take place in English and therefore we will assume that the participants understand the spoken words but interpret them wrong on the basis of different cultural backgrounds.  Moreover, when people have no common language to communicate in they are much more aware of the danger of misunderstandings and therefore more cautious. The serious misunderstandings occur when people think that they understand each other because they can use a common language.

In intercultural communication research it seems prudent to point out that identifying some elements or dimensions of a given culture and attributing them to all members of that culture means to generalize or, even worse, to create stereotypes. This is true, of course. It is, however, necessary to make cultural generalizations despite the problem of stereotypes because otherwise we would have to assume that all differences between persons are purely based on their unique characters. This is not in line with the observation that within one culture communication is largely successful whereas between cultures it is not. Although nearly all possible beliefs are represented in all cultures at all times, each different culture has a preference for some beliefs over others. Of course individuals can be found in any culture who hold beliefs similar to people in a different culture. However, they do not represent the preponderance of people who hold beliefs closer to the norm of the group. In other words: although any individual may hold beliefs very different from their cultural norm, on average persons from that culture will hold beliefs rather similar to their cultural norms.

As we have now identified three important basic tenets, namely a definition of culture, the assumption that a focus on context will be sufficient because intercultural communication largely takes place in English and that the use of generalizations is necessary, we can proceed to the next section of this essay.

In this section we will try to identify possibilities of describing and classifying different cultures. We will see that there are two classifications which both identify five dimensions of culture with which it is possible to describe the values of different cultures. These sets of dimensions are held to be useable for a classification of any given culture.

According to Hofstede there are the five dimensions of Power distance, Masculinity, Individualism, Uncertainty avoidance and Long-term orientation. Power distance refers to the assumption of status difference between people, Masculinity refers to the assumption of gender difference; Individualism refers to the assumption of self-reliance; Uncertainty avoidance refers to the willingness to tolerate ambiguity and the willingness to take risks or not, and Long-term orientation refers to a focus on future rewards. Hofstede developed this categorization by using an inductive approach and surveying a large number of people from different cultures. After having identified the five dimensions he used the data from the national cultures and was able to rank the cultures in terms of each dimension. For instance, Japanese ranked 7th out of 50 on uncertainty avoidance whereas the U.S. ranked 46th. On individualism the U.S. scored 1st and Japan 22nd.

Another approach was used by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck. In a deductive approach they defined, based on research with different cultures, five dimensions of cultural assumptions: people’s relationship to the environment, to each other, to activity, to time, and to the basic nature of human beings. Each of these dimensions is constituted by a continuum of possible relationships that people might assume with the subject. While all positions on the continuum will be represented to some degree in all cultures, one position will be preferred. This general preference constitutes a cultural value.

When the two approaches are compared we can see that the five respective dimensions bear some resemblance. What Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck identify as people’s relationship to each other is reflected in Hofstede’s Individualism, Power distance and to some degree in Masculinity. Relationship to time and Long-term orientation are also somewhat similar although the Long-term orientation also encompasses certain elements of Kluckhohn/Strodtbeck’s relationship to activity (depending on whether activities are carried out with the hope for future rewards). The relationship to activity on the other hand contains some elements of Uncertainty avoidance because activities can take more or less risk when carried out.

A closer analysis reveals that all five of Hofstede’s dimensions refer to the three relationships to time, to activity, and to each other. The relationship to the environment and to the basic nature of human beings are not mirrored in Hofstede’s dimensions. Therefore the Kluckhohn/Strodtbeck approach is the broader one. In this essay, however, Hofstede’s approach will be favoured because it makes finer distinctions in the realm of interpersonal relations possible (people’s relationship to each other versus Power distance, Individualism and Masculinity). As this essay’s focus is on the (linguistic) interaction of people, it seems more important to have access to these finer distinctions of Hofstede’s.

After these preliminary theoretical considerations we can now have a closer look at how linguistics can be of use in understanding intercultural communication. It is evident that nearly all communication, be it intercultural or not, uses language as a communicative tool. In intercultural communication the first obvious problem is to find a language that all participants share. In many cases this will be English. But as communication is now channeled through the medium of a language that might not be the native language of some or all participants, new problems arise. This is mainly because people have only seemingly gained a common ground for communication. There still might be the influence of other languages, as English is very likely not the native language of all participants.

Unfortunately, language does not only serve as a tool for communication but also is a system of representation for perception and thinking. The Whorf/Sapir hypothesis states that human beings dissect nature along the lines laid down by their native language. As impressions have to be organized by the mind, they will be organized by the linguistic system of the mind. This statement is called the strong hypothesis. There also is the so-called weak hypothesis in which Whorf states that language thought and perception are interrelated. These two forms of the Whorf/Sapir hypothesis introduce the concept of linguistic relativity: linguistic relativity suggests that human beings are predisposed by their native languages to make certain distinctions and not others.

There are certainly some flaws to these hypotheses; it is e.g. essentially impossible to prove or disprove them. After all it is impossible to determine whether a certain way of perceiving things created an appropriate language or rather a way of linguistically describing things accounts for the perception of them. We will therefore only use the weak hypothesis here. Despite all problems the Whorf hypothesis alerts the student of intercultural communication that cross-cultural understanding goes beyond logic and reason: intercultural communication might entail a clash of different realities and understanding therefore needs apprehension of essentially alien experience. If one fails to assume that people from different cultures may sincerely perceive the world differently, then all efforts toward understanding are bound to fail.

If we assume that the native language has at least some influence on thinking, it seems to be a good idea to approach intercultural communication from a linguistic point of view. Edward Stewart and Milton Bennet compared English with some other languages (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese) and their findings support the idea of a relationship between languages and culture-specific thinking. I will present some of their findings in the following paragraph.

On a semantic level it can be noted that English has one counting system (one, two, three, etc.) whereas in Japanese there are different counting systems depending on the shape of the objects to be counted. Yet another counting system is used for counting human beings. We could imagine that the experience of objects is much richer in a culture where language gives meaning to differences in shape. Indeed, Japanese aesthetic appreciation of objects seems more developed than that of Americans. Another semantic aspect of Japanese is its elaborate system of second-person singular words which indicate the relative status of speaker to listener. The assumption is that Japanese people must therefore be more aware of social hierarchy and status than Americans who only use one form (you) for second-person singular. This is in line with the observation that hierarchies are indeed very important in Japanese culture. Again on a semantic level we can find that many adjectives in English combine in pairs, such as far and near, heavy and light, good and bad, and high and low. It seems that the adjectives of a pair are opposite but equal in their power to describe positions on the continuum between their extreme positions. In actual use, however, the two adjectives are not equal which can be seen from the use of the adjectives in questions: “How far is it to Aachen?”, “How heavy is this box?”, “How good is the food?”. Therefore, the continuum is defined by two opposites and at the same time referred to as a whole by only one of them. If someone asked “How bad is the food?” the question would mean more than a mere request about the quality of the food. It is already a statement that the quality must be pretty low. Thus, good is general and bad is precise. The same holds true for most adjective pairs. This linguistic feature generalizes to American behaviour easily: In English it is quite easy to criticize and find fault because the vocabulary for negative evaluations is precise. More evidence can be found in a typical phenomenon for American speakers. It is quite common to select a general noun which lacks precision and add to it another noun or adjective as modifier. The modifier may be equally vague but the combination suggests precision. An example might be “reading material” instead of “book”. Whereas a book is a structural concept, a thing, the combination of “reading” and “material” shifts the focus from the structure to the process of using it. These combinations of two or more words that modify each other represent the American preoccupation with processes. The preceding examples have all been taken from semantics. But Stewart and Bennet also found support for the Whorf hypothesis in syntax. By the subject/predicate form speakers of English are constantly forced to express causality. If the subject (the cause) should be missing it is often replaced by “it”. Through this conception English is an actor-action-result model which suggests questions such as “What caused that?” or “What effect will this have?”. It is thus possible to assume that this syntactic feature of English predisposes native speakers of English to interpret events in the world as a linear chain of cause and effect. This is, however, a feature of the English language and other languages might support other ways of logical thinking.

These examples indicate that there might indeed be a relationship between language and thinking. As persons from different cultures usually speak different languages it is rather probable that their communication is troubled by different conceptions. No matter whether cultural differences arise from language or some other causes, the differences remain and must be understood and taken into account if cross-cultural communication is to be successful.

So far we have defined culture and found two possibilities of describing it. Additionally we have confirmed that a linguistic approach to different culture can shed some light on the origins of different cultural features. It is now time to turn to the problem of how to alleviate the devastating effects that cultural differences can have on intercultural communication. A possible way to do this is offered by the branch of linguistics called pragmatics. We will now show how pragmatics can be of use in understanding intercultural communication.

As pragmatics is concerned with speaker’s meaning it is a valuable tool when it comes to analyzing what speakers want to achieve with their utterances. It is indeed often the case that a purely semantic analysis of utterances cannot explain the effects an utterance has for its receivers. This is especially true when in intercultural negotiations an utterance can be misunderstood by a hearer who is from another culture than the speaker is. This is where the notion of context becomes important. All utterances are uttered into a wider background of cultural and other knowledge and presuppositions. In intercultural communication these backgrounds and presuppositions of participants may be very different – the context of the utterance is a different one for speaker and hearer, respectively. This is the main reason why pragmatics is such a mighty tool in an analysis of intercultural communication: it allows the scientist to consider the different cultural contexts of participants in intercultural communication and makes it possible to account for misunderstandings.

In pragmatics, three different contexts of utterances are distinguished. There is the textual context for any utterance, i.e. other utterances surrounding it. Then there is the situational context, the concrete situation in which speaker and hearer interact. Finally there is the widest context possible: the cultural background of values and presuppositions. This last context is, naturally, the most interesting for someone researching intercultural communication, although the situational context is also certainly interesting. Intercultural studies are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on the widest context. Depending on a situational context, speakers may well deviate from values as identified in the wider context of culture. It is, however, much more difficult to determine a situational context than the relatively much more stable cultural context. Moreover, it seems that it is still possible, on average, to (more or less accurately) predict verbal behaviour on the basis of a cultural background only. As it is a main focus of intercultural communication studies to help intercultural communication become more successful it is evident why this focus on a cultural context (which is relatively easy to predict) is made. The completely unpredictable situational context might be taken into account later, when communication breaks down despite the presence of intercultural communication skills. Accordingly, in this essay the focus will be on the widest context, the cultural context.

In the realm of intercultural communication one often hears “context” as “high context” or “low context”. This is used to describe how dependent the meaning of an utterance is of its context. Low context communication means that most or all information is transferred in the explicit code of the language. In high context communication most of the information is in the context – in the speaker, the hearer, their relative position to each other, and the situation. In general, high context transactions are more on the feeling, intimate side while low context ones are much less personal and oriented towards facts and truth. A typical low context conversation might take place in Germany where it is possible to utter criticism of other persons in a very explicit and direct way. A typical high context example would be Japan where criticism will more likely be padded into a story and therefore expressed implicitly. The person wishing to criticize might tell a story about something that went wrong at some other place and some other time and from that the criticized person can guess that something went wrong in the here and now. Moreover, in a culture such as the Japanese, the way the information is expressed will very likely depend on the relationship of the participants and status differences. When now a German and a Japanese person work together, an utterance of the German which is completely acceptable in a German context is interpreted by the Japanese as being very rude. Vice-versa, the storytelling of the Japanese is very likely perceived as vague, delusive or even dishonest by the German. Thus, as the same utterance is interpreted differently on the basis of a different cultural context, misunderstandings occur.

Another example here might be a situation in a company on a Friday afternoon. As the books will be checked on Monday, the head of department wants to make sure everything is in order before the visitors come. In Germany the head might write an email that reads like this: “Please make sure the books are in order before you leave today.” In America it might be this: “Perhaps we should take some time before we leave to check and see if everything is in order?”. In Japan the email will very likely resemble this: “We haven’t had visitors in a while. We would wish them to get the best impression of our department when they next come.” The illocutionary force of all three emails is exactly the same. The boss wants the job done today and it must be perfect. Moreover, it will be understood exactly as intended in the respective cultures. For a German, however, the Japanese email is too vague to suggest that immediate action is necessary. To a Japanese person the German email is far too direct and will be perceived as horribly rude.

With this information it seems that pragmatics with its preoccupation with context seems to be a good method to approach the studies of intercultural communication.

Having considered the previously shown aspects of intercultural communication, we can now attempt to come to a conclusion. The whole problem of intercultural communication per se is far too complex to be understood after so short an essay. It is therefore not possible to describe any culture here in a way that could enable a proper pragmatic analysis of any intercultural communication.

Moreover, pragmatics can only be applied fruitfully once we are aware of what values and assumptions constitute cultural backgrounds. This can be done more effectively, I believe, by other social sciences such as anthropology. But once we have found out about cultural values, preferably also about our own, we can apply this knowledge to a pragmatic analysis of what is said.

Intercultural encounters impose very complex problems on the people involved. Even very deeply embedded cultural values might be put in question and participants therefore have to be aware that even truths that seem to be universal might be culturally specific. Once we have gained knowledge about our own culture and the culture we are dealing with we can go forth and try to analyze intercultural encounters. This can be done effectively by a pragmatic approach as this will enable us to take the respective cultural context into account and incorporate it into the analysis. This is, however, not an easy task (as should be obvious by now) and therefore we can clearly put forward that a real interest in intercultural communication goes beyond compiling a simple list of dos and don’ts. The only universal role might be to never judge other’s behaviour too easily or too fast as one might just not yet know what their true intention was.


Bennet, Milton J. (1998): Intercultural communication. A current perspective. In: Bennet, Milton J.(Ed.) (1998): Basic concepts of intercultural communication. Selected readings. Intercultural Press.

Ramsey, Sheila J. (1998): Interactions between North Americans and Japanese: Considerations of communication. In: Bennet, Milton J.(Ed.) (1998): Basic concepts of intercultural communication. Selected readings. Intercultural Press.

Stewart, Edward C. & Bennet, Milton J. (1991): American Cultural Patterns. A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Intercultural Press.

Young, Linda W. L. (1982): Inscrutability revisited. In: Gumperz, John J. (Ed.) (1982): Language and Social Identity. Studies in interactional sociolinguistics 2. Cambridge University Press.


weird habits of Germans

One of the most frequent searches leading to this blog is about “weird habits of Germans”. Unfortunately the poor suckers that come here only find out this blogger’s weird habits and a bit about his life.

Unfortunately, I as a German cannot comment on weird habits of Germans. To Germans their habits make perfect sense and are not weird at all.

For an American point of view on Germany confer: nothing for ungood.